Remarks at the launch Australia’s Second Chance by George Megalogenis

November 25, 2015

Well thank you very much and it is great to be here with George – a writer who has informed and inspired us for so long.

Indeed George I was quoting from your previous book The Longest Decade in the House only yesterday it’s a very apt remarks Paul Keating made to you – which seem to apply very accurately to the Opposition at the moment.

Can I welcome here as well George’s family. I have to check, my Greek is very rusty and ancient in every respect, but I have to check whether in fact this – Megalogenis – means great family or big beards.

George assures me that Niki Savva, another great Hellenistic writer, says it means big beards. Yet of course you have no beard at all… but I will stick with great families.

George, as you said, writes with a crisp, spare style. I say this to some of the lawyers here, who will know what I mean, that he writes with the crispness of one of the great English judges, Lord Denning. It’s something that I should try to do more of – shorter sentences. It’s taken me a while, I will work on it.

There has been an enormous amount of research gone into the book. George has been ploughing through the microfiches of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Melbourne Argus, The Bulletin and right back to great regional newspapers like The Queenslander, The Launceston Advertiser and The Bathurst Free Press.

Having a spouse who is writing a book is always a terrible pain for the husband or wife as the case may be. As for your daughter, I’m sure that very few children of your generation would understand why their dad is spending so much time with a newspaper – what’s that? Let alone a microfiche – what’s that? Surely he can get that on his iPad?

It seems amazing that you have got to go into all those dusty archives.

George’s output is enormous. This year alone he’s produced a documentary series for the ABC which has been acclaimed – Making Australia Great. Of course in his previous book I mentioned – The Longest Decade – he documented the era when Australia made up lost ground by introducing policy reforms adopted abroad, to be fair, floating the dollar, financial deregulation, adopting a target band for inflation and of course by dismantling barriers to the world whether it’s been tariffs or of course the White Australia policy.

Now, Second Chance has got a different starting point. It’s the huge sweep of history from the First Fleet through to Federation and the twentieth century, explaining how we as Australians crafted a social and cultural model quite distinct from that of the old world.

George is one of those very few authors that have sought to explain Australian exceptionalism and he’s done so in an unsentimental way. There was a time when Australian exceptionalism was explained in terms of the bush myth. Something my late mother wrote about many years ago, commenting on the way in which in the 19th century there was a sort of Arcadian utopia imagined in Australia, and of course perpetuated by the bush poets Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson and so forth.

So this a much more modern understanding of Australian exceptionalism and what George identifies is something that I like to talk about a lot, I think we should all talk about it a lot. How did we become the most successful multicultural society in the world? How did we do that? How did we build this multicultural society based on mutual respect and as he identifies it was originally, back in colonial, days illegal “to provoke animosity between Her Majesty’s subjects of different religious persuasions”. And of course that is reflected, to some degree, in the constitution which decrees that there will be no established religion.

We created one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. The first country to provide both full voting rights for men and women and a secret ballot – of course, not excluding Indigenous people to our great shame, something that was corrected many years later. We did that for 50 years before Britain in terms of a universal mail ballot and then universal female suffrage began in the 1890s in South Australia.

George quotes the Melbourne Argus from 1856, saying “Somewhere between the systems of Great Britain and America seems to lie the grand secret of the most free and effective government”. And there’s a great wisdom in that. We have a free market system, free market economy, free market tradition, culture if you like. But capitalism is not as red in tooth and claw as it is in the United States. On the other hand, the welfare state – the nanny state – is not as, if you like, as interfering as it is in Europe.

So we have struck a balance between the two and that I think is to be found in the combination of egalitarianism – Jack is as good as his master, everybody’s equal, we call each other people by our first names. Australians are much less deferential than our European or indeed our American colleagues and that’s really important. In a different sense in terms of the importance of driving economic growth through innovation which is critical for every enterprise, every business, whether it’s a tech start-up or a manufacturing company 100 years old, or whether it’s a farm. Deference is very dangerous. We should always be courteous, but deference if it’s overdone can mean death because what it means is you are not prepared to say to the boss “Hey, the way we’re doing things doesn’t work anymore, we’ve got to change”. We’ve always got to be prepared to be open to new ideas.

Now openness, openness to the world is one of the big themes in this book and George talks about the way Australia was open and then it was closed. And then it opened again after the 1950s and he notes that had Arthur Calwell won the 1961 election with a pledge to cut migration back, had Arthur Calwell won that election instead of Robert Menzies the great family of the Megalogenis would never have come to Australia in all probability – we would have been deprived of this book. And it’s interesting that he also notes that the opposition to the levels of migration, which was quite high around the time of the ’61 election and great credit to Robert Menzies and dare I say the party that he led – our party, the Liberal Party – stuck with the commitment to high levels of immigration, stuck with, although the term was not used in those days, a commitment to a multicultural Australia because by three years later, by 1964, public opinion had shifted and support for the migration programme was strong.

That openness and multiculturalism based on mutual respect is what has defined most of the most successful societies in the world. Because I’m here in the presence of such a great Hellenic family, you can look at some of the great Greek cities when was Istanbul or Constantinople at its greatest? When it was its most diverse. When was Alexandria at its most successful? When it was its most diverse. When was Smyrna or Izmir – as it is now called – at its greatest? When it was at its most open and diverse. Diversity is our strength, our greatest asset – as the publisher said – is not the rocks under the ground, but the people that walk on top of it. And this multicultural Australia is a remarkable achievement and we should treasure it and hold it dear.

I should before I conclude having discussed multicultural Australia and immigration, just acknowledge among so many other distinguished guests, Phillip Ruddock – a great immigration minister. The nation we have today – multicultural Australia today – so harmonious relative to others is the creation of millions, but it’s a creation of 23 million Australians and it’s the creation of many ministers and leaders from every walk of life. In our modern era there is no individual that has done more to create the remarkable multicultural nation in which we live than Phillip Ruddock.

Thank you all very much.

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